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Semicolons

Do you get confused about the proper way to use a semicolon? Semicolons do not represent a full stop at the end of a sentence, as periods do; rather, they’re like the “yellow light” of punctuation marks: they signal a pause between one sentence and the next. You slow down, then stop at the end of the second sentence.

Rule 1. Use a semicolon in place of a period to separate two sentences where the conjunction has been left out.

Examples:
Call me tomorrow; I will give you my answer then.
They went to the scariest movie they could find; they didn’t invite their youngest sister.

Rule 2. It is preferable to use a semicolon before introductory words such as namely, however, therefore, that is, i.e., for example, e.g., or for instance when they introduce a complete sentence. It is also preferable to use a comma after the introductory word.

Examples:
You will want to bring many backpacking items; for example, sleeping bags, pans, and warm clothing will make the trip better.
As we discussed, you will bring two items; i.e., a sleeping bag and a tent are not optional.

Rule 3. Use the semicolon to separate units of a series when one or more of the units contain commas.

Example:
This conference has people who have come from Boise, Idaho; Los Angeles, California; and Nashville, Tennessee.

Pop Quiz

Select the correctly punctuated sentence.

1A. Let’s go dancing; afterward we can get dessert.
1B. Let’s go dancing, afterward we can get dessert

2A. Pizza is my favorite food; however, I haven’t had a chance to eat it in a couple of years.
2B. Pizza is my favorite food, however I haven’t had a chance to eat it in a couple of years.

3A. The three winners of the contest were Kelly Gee, California, Bob Davis, Delaware, and Sandy Hu, Nevada.
3B. The three winners of the contest were Kelly Gee, California; Bob Davis, Delaware; and Sandy Hu, Nevada.

Answers to Pop Quiz

Correct answers are indicated in bold type and by an asterisk (*).

1A.* Let’s go dancing; afterward we can get dessert.
1B. Let’s go dancing, afterward we can get dessert

2A.* Pizza is my favorite food; however, I haven’t had a chance to eat it in a couple of years.
2B. Pizza is my favorite food, however I haven’t had a chance to eat it in a couple of years.

3A. The three winners of the contest were Kelly Gee, California, Bob Davis, Delaware, and Sandy Hu, Nevada.
3B.* The three winners of the contest were Kelly Gee, California; Bob Davis, Delaware; and Sandy Hu, Nevada.

Posted on Tuesday, September 29, 2009, at 9:56 am


8 Comments

8 Responses to “Semicolons”

  1. Adrienne says:

    Regarding the first semicolon rule, the first example for ‘capitalization after semicolons’ is a terrible example.

    The writer is trying to demonstrate the rule of capitalization after a semicolon… the first word of the 2nd sentence (following the semicolon) begins with an “I”… “I” is always capitalized, therefor the reader still doesn’t know whether to capitalize or not.

    Here is the example copy & pasted: Call me tomorrow; I will give you my answer then.

    Wouldn’t something like this be a better example?: Call me tomorrow; Then I can give you my answer.

    Just wanted to point that out, I know the following examples clearly state the capitalization rule…but this page is the first result I received on Google search results and I thought… if you’re going to get that much traffic, you should at least be more attentive to the examples.

    Thank you for your time; You are appreciated.

    • Jane says:

      Neither this rule nor any of the semicolon rules specifically address “capitalization after semicolons.” You never capitalize after semicolons except with proper nouns or words such as I, which are always capitalized. Thus, your example should be: Call me tomorrow; then I can give you my answer. While this rule does cover how “to separate two sentences where the conjunction has been left out,” when two sentences are joined by either a conjunction or a semicolon, they become one sentence and therefore only the first word of the new sentence is capitalized.

  2. Stewart says:

    I was wondering if you would confirm something relating to semi-colon use.

    Way back in school, I seem to remember being told it’s appropriate to use a semi-colon when introducing lists in sentences (rather than using bullet points.) For Example:

    I didn’t have to pick up too many items from the shop. All I got was; bread, milk, sugar, cereal.

    Can you confirm if this is an acceptable use of a semi-colon?

    • Jane says:

      As you can see from Rule 2 of this blog and from Rules 2 and 3 from my chapter on semicolons, the proper use of a semicolon with a list is only when you are using introductory words such as namely, however, therefore, that is, i.e., for example, e.g., or for instance.

      Rule 2 It is preferable to use a semicolon before introductory words such as namely, however, therefore, that is, i.e., for example, e.g., or for instance when they introduce a complete sentence. It is also preferable to use a comma after the introductory word.

      Examples:
      You will want to bring many backpacking items; for example, sleeping bags, pans, and warm clothing will make the trip better.
      As we discussed, you will bring two items; i.e., a sleeping bag and a tent are not optional.

      Rule 3 Use either a semicolon or a comma before introductory words such as namely, however, therefore, that is, i.e., for example, e.g., or for instance when they introduce a list following a complete sentence. Use a comma after the introductory word.

      Examples:
      You will want to bring many backpacking items; for example, sleeping bags, pans, and warm clothing.
      You will want to bring many backpacking items, for example, sleeping bags, pans, and warm clothing.

  3. Marten H. says:

    I am a horror author with a bend toward the classical. One of my dearest friends is a former English instructor from ten years ago, and among our recent conversations, we brought up the topic of John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet X: Death Be Not Proud.”

    In the edition which I own, the final line reads as follows:
    “And Death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die;.”

    As you can see, the semicolon comes before the period.

    My friend looked to his own copies of Donne’s classical piece and could not find any instance of the semicolon before the period. We decided to do a little homework on the subject of semicolon-before-period and have found nothing–even for Seventeenth Century Poetry stating that it can be done for punctuation or stylistic purposes. I’m left believing that it is a typo, but I think it is the most beautiful typo I have ever seen. Imagine, saying “Death thou shalt die;.” The brief separation of units in a series–thinking dramatically of someone actually saying this at the moment of death and having that separation before the final period. That’s something I think should be brought to the ention of the Emperor of Punctuation wherever he may be.

    If I am incorrect and it is not a typo, I was wondering if you could please let me know. If it is, I think we shall have to contact “The Emperor of Punctuation.” This is a truly fascinating find.

    • Jane says:

      What you are saying is fascinating but, alas, I think it is just a typo. No semicolon appears in this spot in my copy of The Norton Anthology of Poetry even though Donne uses four other semicolons in this sonnet. I have not seen a justification in anything I’ve read for a semicolon immediately preceding a period.

  4. Julia says:

    Can one ever use semicolons in front of quotations? I always use commas; but my husband uses semicolons. I don’t think it’s right all the time; but I’m wondering now if it’s ever correct.

    • We hesitate to say never, but a semicolon before a direct quote is not customary. Your husband is making the common mistake of thinking a semicolon is a variation on a colon; it isn’t.

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